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Special Edition

Toxic Tourism

Antarctica: the intense frozen continent that serves as the setting for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s daring expeditions. Explorers and scholars have been making the voyage to the icy landscape ever since it was first discovered by John Davis in early 1821.

Photo by Pixabay

In the last couple of decades, research facilities have hosted around 4,000 scientists each year, and the tourism industry has been steadily growing. This year it is expected that over 100,000 people will make the expedition down to the South Pole, braving the Drake Passage on old research ships that have been converted to cruise ships.

Now is probably not the time to visit the South Pole—at least until we can be sure that the presence of increased tourism won’t harm it. The Antarctic continent is too important to the health of the entire globe.

So how does the average person get to visit Antarctica? The US Department of State says that no passports, visas, or vaccinations are required to step foot on the continent, although they may be necessary in order to pass through transit countries. If you can get yourself to Buenos Aires or Ushuaia, Argentina, there are a number of cruises that will take you farther south than you’ve ever been, for an average price of $8,000.

Those who have made this trip as a tourist profess it to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Many have left reviews on popular travel websites and most of them are five-star raves. Only about 50 percent of tourists actually set foot on the continent, though, as some of the cruises sail just along the coastlines or around the islands that surround Antarctica.

However, increased attention focused on this travel destination is doing more harm than good. One of the biggest concerns about tourists traveling to Antarctica is the large carbon footprint that they bring with them. The International Union for Conservation of Nature is concerned specifically about the high black carbon emissions caused by the increase in cruises. If they continue at the rate that they are, the temperatures in Antarctica will increase as well.

Antarctica plays a large role in regulating global climate. The large, icy land mass is responsible for keeping our planet’s overall temperature cool and livable. It also draws out huge amounts of carbon dioxide (which is a greenhouse gas) from the atmosphere.

The oceans that surround the continent are extremely frigid, which means they are the driving force behind the world’s oceanic currents. If Antarctica is threatened by higher temperatures through carbon emissions, we lose those functions. This will cause enormous repercussions for the entire globe.

Not to mention, the Polar Journal reports dangers other than just high carbon levels. Heiner Kubny writes that tourists could inadvertently bring non-native insects or spores that could disturb the natural ecosystem; wildlife that has never been exposed to tourism could become massively disturbed.

Researchers have even conducted studies that have shown penguin species’ changing behaviors because they were exposed to tourism. When groups of penguins become too familiar with humans, there is the chance that they will lose some of their necessary survival skills because they learn to rely on tourist’s attention and tasty treats.

Does this mean that you need to cross Antarctica off your traveling bucket list? In an effort to preserve this unique and important land, laws regulating tourism need to be implemented and enforced. Travel companies who want to exploit the continent need to adhere to eco-friendly practices in order to reduce the carbon emissions that the environment is being subjected to. Extreme caution should be exercised in their consideration of the unique ecosystem of flora and fauna as well.

If you dream of visiting Antarctica one day, consider how you can lend your support to organizations like the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. IAATO works to operate under the Antarctic Treaty System, to which 56 countries are tied, and promote environmentally conscious ways to travel. Through the work of environmental scientists and activists, we can work together to preserve this beautiful winter wonderland.